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A virtue out of necessity

Wildlife photographers tend to ask a lot from their gear. It’s there to do a job, even in heavy wind, rain, snow, or during a hail storm. Long lenses with a large magnification let us get ‘closer’ to the animals. The focus speed of both the lens and camera should be virtually instant, so we don’t have to miss a single moment. High shutter speeds freeze all movement and help to capture the smallest details. A good amount of warm, bright light guaranties low noise in the final image. Fulfilling these ‘demands’ should, theoretically, produce the ‘perfect’ shot, time after time.

In the field, it isn’t always that simple. More often than not, it is a matter of getting the most ‘usable’ shot, instead of the ‘perfect’ shot. (There is, of course, no such thing as ‘the perfect shot’.) With shutter speeds exceeding 1/1000th of a second, digital noise easily creeps into one’s pictures. Hard sunlight might give the ‘best’ results; when you’re shooting on a cloudy day, you are going to need all the light you can get. A camera can compensate for the lack of light by increasing its ISO, but that results in more noise, and less detail. Lowering the shutter speed allows your camera to gather more light, but it also introduces motion blur. Certain types of motion blur can aid your picture, but it can also wreck it. Shooting wildlife is partly a case of balancing out those two thing, noise, and motion blur. ‘How slow can I get my shutter speed?’ ‘What ISO or shutter speed can I get away with?’

That is how I approach most shots, like this shot of a sparrowhawk. On a heavily clouded day, this hawk lands op a small island in front of me. It keeps put for twenty minutes or so; a luxury in photographing birds of prey! This gives me some time to balance out my camera settings. I take the first couple of shots with a shutter speed of 1/800th of a second. No motion blur, but even with ISO 6400 the shot is underexposed, and the amount of noise makes it unusable. Time(!) to reduce the shutter speed. After a bit of trail and error, I manage to get a good shot with 1/50th of a second. The result: a sharp picture with significantly less noise.

There is a lot to say for a tack sharp picture that captures every single detail. But adding a bit of motion to a shot can also have its value. For instance, shooting birds in flight with a slow shutting speed, captures the movement of the birds; a short, fast shutter speed freezes the action. A shutter speed of 1/60th of a second shows the movement of these geese and lapwings, while maintaining enough detail to easily identify them as such. Even slower shutter speeds reduce birds to silhouettes.

Slow shutter speeds can also help you to capture different kinds of motion. This gadwall is busy with preening and washing itself. With the right shutter speed, the bird is still sharp, while also showing the movement in the wings.

So make a virtue out of a necessity, and reduce that shutter speed!

On December 16th, Bosvogelt will attend the Kerst Cadeau Markt (Christmas Gift Market) on the Vismarkt, Leiden, The Netherlands, from 11:00 to 17:00.
Get your Bosvogelt postcards there!